Transportation expert Daniel Sperling — who earlier this month received the 2013 Blue Planet Award for research in environmental sciences — outlined a pathway to a more sustainable future during a talk Thursday evening in Young Hall on the UC Davis campus.
Sperling, who is director of the university’s Institute for Transportation Studies, outlined what he projects will be a “soaring demand for vehicles” — and oil — during the next two decades, with some 2 billion vehicles in the world by 2020, rising to a figure approaching 3 billion by 2030.
Sperling said that as developing countries will be adding “hundreds of millions of new vehicles, and if you start mapping that onto India, Brazil, Indonesia and other countries, we are going to see real challenges. … More income equals more cars. People want more mobility. As they get richer, they buy more cars. We’ve observed this everywhere.”
If those vehicles continue to be fueled by gasoline, Sperling said, there will be an environmental downside because petroleum from tar sands, shale oil and shale gas “is carbon-intensive. It takes more energy to get it out of the ground and process it. We’re carbonizing our energy system.”
And this will lead to a worldwide situation in which “climate change is the greatest threat. There is lots of fossil energy (in the world), but if we follow that path, we are going to have catastrophic changes in climate.”
These climate changes would be “far worse in the rest of the world” as compared to the United States, he said.
“We can buy ourselves around a lot of these problems (here), by building a wall around San Francisco International Airport (to hold back rising sea levels), and moving agriculture.”
He noted that the Napa Valley wine region would be rendered inoperative if temperatures rise, making the region too hot for growing high-quality wine grapes. Mitigating these changes in a place like California “will be expensive, but we can probably do it,” he said. “But if you get to Bangladesh and India, they don’t have the resources.”
The pathway Sperling outlined involves reducing greenhouse gases by 50 to 80 percent by 2050, limiting the extent of global warming. He acknowledged that this will require “a huge change in our transportation systems, and our cities. I believe this is the greatest challenge facing humanity and the Earth,” he said.
“The challenge we face is unlike any challenge humans have faced before, transforming our entire society: our behavior, the design of buildings, the kind of energy we use, how we travel. We have never tried to do anything like this before.”
Sperling noted that transportation accounts for one-quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted in the world, and also accounts for two-thirds of oil consumption in the United States. He added that buildings are effectively the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, since most electricity is used in buildings, and so much of the world’s electricity is generated by fossil fuels.
He said that currently, transportation is “96 percent dependent on oil.” He forecast that in coming decades, there will be a shift to “a wide mix of fuels to power mobility — biofuels, hydrogen, electricity.”
Sperling added that “cars of the future will be far more efficient, and will be powered mostly by electric drive,” resulting in a substantial reduction in gasoline consumption by cars, and he added that this transformation is already underway. “This is the biggest success story for the United States; vehicle efficiency is improving steadily,” he said.
But Sperling acknowledged that “for the U.S., it is going to be a while before we start significantly downsizing our vehicles. Mostly they are becoming more efficient and lighter — but they probably won’t be shrinking a lot.” Current government policy provides “no incentive for reducing the footprint” of vehicles — the amount of space covered between the vehicle’s wheels.
Sperling also called for a transformation of “mobility and land use.” He cited statistics saying that public transit accounts for only 2.5 percent of passenger travel in the United States, with airline travel accounting for 10 percent, “and almost all the rest is by car.”
He said American cities have “very low density,” but added that denser cities result in fewer vehicle miles traveled. He sees cities becoming denser, since “new roads are now very expensive to build,” so there will be “very few cities putting new money into new roads.”
And this is contributing to a new trend: “We are starting to see a flattening-out of vehicle use in rich countries — and this has surprised almost everyone,” Sperling said. He said ideas like “dynamic ride-sharing, smart paratransit and car-sharing” will become more important in years to come.
Sperling’s talk was part of the “Visionary” speaker series, co-produced by the Architects Institute of America’s Central Valley chapter and the United States Green Building Council’s Capital Branch. He received an award from those two groups at the end of his talk.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.